Reading the Scars: Rita Dove's the Darker Face of the Earth

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Writer as Reader

Rita Dove's The Darker Face of the Earth is a recounting of the Oedipus drama, framed in terms of the African-American experience of slavery. It is a poet's reading of Oedipus the King, resonating with the beauty and richness of the ancient images and the harrowing dynamics of the mythic plot. Like the original, Dove's play draws on a transcendent power, a dynamic that is at once erotic, compassionate, and creative. The play as a whole, set on a pre-Civil War plantation near Charleston, South Carolina, is a reading not only of the Oedipus myth but also and in particular of the reality of slavery in the American past. In looking at that history, and at those scars that continue to "write" the circumstances of the present, this reading is endowed with both compassion and clearheaded responsibility to face and recognize the horrors as well as the richness implicit in the past.

The play received its premiere production in July 1996 under the direction of Ricardo Khan at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. [1] As a play authored by a black woman, its very presentation raises the question of what it means to adapt and restage, and thus reread, classics of the Western tradition for today's audiences. It remains to be seen how this work will be positioned in the "great racial dilemma" (Cruse 49)--whether to underscore the "African" or the "American" in the African-American literary tradition. Clearly Dove's work reflects what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., identifies as a "two-toned heritage," one which, while it "revise[s] texts in the Western tradition,[ldots] [does] so 'authentically,' with a black difference [ldots] based on the black vernacular" (Signifying xxii-xxiii). [2]

Examples of reading recur within The Darker Face of the Earth, with the result that the subject of reading becomes a central thematic concern of the drama. From the songs and stories of the slave community to Yoruba invocations of orisha worship, from the "Book of Redemption" sworn on by the slave conspirators to dusty tomes of astronomy and astrology, "texts" and their readings are liberally woven into the fabric of the play. In this essay I will explore the implications of The Darker Face of the Earth as a reading and as a commentary on the act of reading. In doing so I will maintain that Dove's play not only listens to, responds to, and interprets the originals, but also is itself an example of the essential creativity of the reading act.

In a critical scene (1.8) in which Amalia, the plantation mistress, first interviews Augustus, her newly purchased slave, as many as seven distinct references are made to texts and reading.

Indeed the scene is structured sequentially, moving from one such reading event to the next. First, (1) the protagonists listen as the slaves in the fields sing "the sorrow songs," for which, as Augustus explains, "they don't need a psalm book" (2nd ed. 82). [3] In contrast, (2) Augustus confirms his own literacy, listing the books of his formative education: "Milton. The Bible. / And the Tales of the Greeks" (83). (3) The book Amalia holds and has been reading, one of those "Tales of the Greeks"--in translation, as she emphasizes--becomes the focal point of a verbal contest between the two. (4) Amalia recounts a recent event, known to her via both newspaper and word of mouth accounts, of an uprising on the slave ship Amistad. In her telling Amalia revises the history, adapting it to suit her present purposes (86-87). In response, (5) Augustus tells his own story of a slave uprising (89-90). This is not a current events item or an account with any claim to historical accuracy, but rather an almost mythologica l, cautionary sort of tale, clearly constructed to move the listener/reader's heart and teach a lesson. Meanwhile, (6) Louis, Amalia's husband, is heard in his room above, "reading" the night sky for portents (87-88).

The scene concludes with Amalia and Augustus embracing. …